“The poor little girl saw her mother in the house, naked, with a man…”
The adobe houses that people live in up in the mountains are not very big. Usually just one or two rooms. There are not many secrets in family life.
“At least they could go outside, behind some bushes or something… You’d think this place is a paradise…”
In many ways it is paradise. The valleys are green. The sky is blue. The sun is hot. There are no traffic jams. No drug dealers. No TV. No stone-hearted tax collectors. No stone head politicians. No crackpot economists.
“But these children are not innocent…they’ve seen everything… Well, not the same things that kids in the city have seen…but they are not innocent. The problem here is that they don’t have families… Not all of them, of course. But a lot of the girls just have babies. First with one man…then with another… And sometimes they start as young as 12 years old. They see their mothers…and then they do the same thing.”
We had invited the entire local school over for an outing. Two teachers – Olivia and Lilliane – along with their 23 students. Lilliane, a slim, attractive woman in her 40s, with black hair pulled back in a bun and bright red lips, was telling us about the problems they face:
“I’ve been here for 26 years. We used to have twice as many students as we do now. But now the girls don’t have as many children. They know how to avoid getting pregnant. But they still carry on…
“And they’re bolder and naughtier than they used to be. I woke up one night and found one older boy had snuck into the school and was in bed with one of the girls. We had to make a rule…no one gets to stay in the school after they are older than 12. But even that doesn’t seem like enough. One night we found a boy of ten in bed with a girl of 11. They’re just too young for that kind of thing.
“Many of the children stay with us because they live too far up in the hills to go home at night. And some of them live so far away that they have to stay with us on the weekends too. We have 9 who stay with us on the weekends now.
“But it’s exhausting for us, because we have to keep an eye on them at night…we can’t trust the children to behave themselves.”
When the children arrived, they filed into the house quietly, timidly. Many of them had never been in a real house before.
“Have a seat…sit down,” we told them.
They sat down without a word. The house was silent. Our Spanish is not good enough to entertain a group of 23 children. In a flash of inspiration, we picked up the guitar and started singing the first song that occurred to us:
“Your cheatin’ heart…will tell on you….”
The kids giggled.
By the time we were finished the final verse, Elizabeth had brought in the pan casero (homemade, unleavened bread) with marmalade on it. They had brought their own cups, into which we poured mate cocido – a type of herb tea.
The kids seemed satisfied. When they were finished, they went out into the courtyard.
“Gimme five,” said Calvert loudly, to a group of boys. “Up high…down low…uh oh…too slow.”
The boys laughed. One by one, they tried to slap Calvert’s hand before he jerked it away. Then, Edward got out his soccer ball and the boys all played.
As for the girls, we don’t know what they were doing. But our Argentine friend, Maria, had gotten back to the house by then. She had been on a long ride on a short, uncomfortable mule. Maria plays the guitar and sings too, only people don’t laugh at her. She must have entertained the girls somehow.
Maria was the last to come back from our outing. We had left the house early in the morning to ride up to see Dona Ileena – an old woman who lives high in the mountains. Her husband, Felix, fell down a few weeks ago and hit his head. He was taken down from their lodge and driven to a hospital a couple of hours away. That left Ileena alone. No one had seen her in several days; we thought we should pay her a visit.
We don’t know how Maria ended up on the mule. But she was a good sport about it. On the way back, she switched mounts with someone else, but then went back to the mule.
The horses took up a steady trot for a couple of miles across the plain…up the valley…until they arrived at the pass. Then, they slowed to a walk to pick their way down the rocky road that led to the smaller valley below. It took 2 hours to reach the alfalfa fields. We dismounted for a few minutes, drank some water, tightened our saddle girth straps, and headed upstream. The river was dry at first. Then, a trickle of water appeared. We continued up the valley, making our way between thorn bushes, alamos trees, pampas grasses and the rock cliff wall on the side of the river. On the right, we passed two abandoned adobe houses. On the left, there were Indian ruins…the stone walls that once held small terraced fields.
After another hour and a half, Gustavo, who was leading this expedition, pointed up to the right.
“We have to go up there. That’s where Ileena lives.”
It was not obvious how we were going to get up there.
Gustavo didn’t hesitate. He found a path through the thorn bushes…that turned into a path through the rocks. The horses strained to get up the hillside. It’s amazing where they can go. Soon, they were on a green mesa, their riders still on their backs.
The pasture looked over-grazed, but we saw only one horse, tied up near the house, and two cows lying under a tree. Our horses stepped over a low stone wall, another relic of the Indian days. The place was naturally fortified. Steep cliffs guarded the access on three sides. On the other, the mountain went up rather than down. Over on the edge of the cliff was an enclosure of sticks and logs, where a herd of goats was kept; the enclosure was not meant to keep them from getting out, but to keep the puma from getting in. It must have been moved there from in front of the house, where there was about three feet of goat manure, forming a large circle.
The house was made of adobe, with a low, mud roof and a few openings to let out the smoke. Off to the side was another low building, also of adobe, probably used for tools and storage.
No one came out.
“Ileena…” Gustavo yelled, urging his horse closer to the house. Still, no sound came from the house.
Then, a moment later, Ileena came out, dressed in a dirty, dusty, torn dress…a sweater, and a pair of cloth shoes, torn open at the toes. Her grey hair was pinned behind her head and her face was crossed by hundreds of wrinkles. She might have been 60…or 90…we couldn’t tell.
She smiled. We got down off our horses, and greeted her warmly with kisses and hugs. But we couldn’t understand what she said. Gustavo had to translate.
Then, when we were satisfied that all was well, we mounted up again for the long ride back.
“The Indians never left here,” Maria explained. “This place has probably been inhabited for 1,000 years. Nothing much has changed.”
This is not the first time we’ve met Ileena. She and Felix were often down in the valley when we visited. They always seemed to be in a good humor. Thin and spry, it looked like they would live forever. But now Felix is in a hospital with a head injury and no one is sure he’ll ever be completely right again.
Life goes on.
The following day, life went on some more. We rode up to the old reservoir. Uphill and down. Over rocks and streams. Among ancient Indian ruins…and saddle sores. The old reservoir is still there. Perhaps it too dates from the time of the Inca or even before the Inca – the Diaguitas – or even some more ancient group. A long time ago, after the hunter gatherers began settling down to plant corn and potatoes, people figured out that if they were going to live in this valley they had to find a way to store and direct the little water they had. Life needs water.
And there was not enough water falling from the sky to support much of anything.
We examined the old reservoir and then gave up. There is no way to get machinery to it. And it is too big to dig out by hand.
Riding back, we passed one of the adobe houses where “la gente” live. An old woman, short and fat, came running out. She had a handkerchief to her face, as though he had been crying.
Jorge turned his horse around. He rode over to the old woman and spoke to her for a few minutes. Then, he rejoined our group…
“She told me my father died… She heard it on the radio. He lives in Salta. But they make announcements on the radio for the people in the mountains to inform them of important events.
“He was 85 years old…and sick… I’ll confirm it when we get back to the house. (We have a satellite phone for emergencies). If it is true, I’ll have to leave to go get the body…”
Life goes on…
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